Comments on Zhao & Frank’s ecological perspective of classroom technology integration

Posted on Nov 20, 2009

An article on classroom technology integration was offered in one of my classes: Factors Affecting Technology Uses in Schools: An Ecological Perspective. Yong Zhao, Kenneth A. Frank – Michigan State University.

I’ve read through about half of it so far – it’s slow reading (which is good), and it’s also getting late. I cannot help myself but to respond (in typically unacademic fashion) to some of the proposals.

I like the idea of comparing the classroom situation to an ecological model. However, I think there were several assumptions made about the components of the model, and the evolutionary urgency of each.

First, in the paper, technology is offered as a component that evolves, with the computer being one example. The difficulty I have with the use of this metaphor is that technology is an impure object compared to nature. It does not circulate in metaphorical blood vessels heroically providing nutrients and homeostasis in the educational body as an agent of Darwinian survival interest, with features that “survive” and others that don’t.

Instead, it circulates in the body of a market economy whose homeostasis is not based on any intrinsic value, but in its moneymaking capacity within business models, venture capital finance, competition from powerful entities whose inferior products are threatened, and so on. Good products can be easily squelched; poor products can flourish (see: Devo). All kinds of garbage can end up in classrooms for a variety of bureaucratic reasons. Technology, like intelligence, is a subjective matter whose importance is measured according to whose interests (economic or social) are dominant in the socio-ecological model. Features are deliberately withheld – others are forced upon us. (It’s my biased opinion that had not PCs been so dominant in the 80s and 90s, we would all be using Macs today. Macs are clearly a superior product 😉

Second, the classroom can be described in an ecological model fairly enough. However, I would offer it differently. It is ecological in the sense that it is a system. But it is a contrived system. Its ecological imperative is made analogous to the survival/proliferation mechanisms in nature, although Western classroom discourse has nothing to with survival beyond its own perpetuation as an institution. In other words, classrooms are not the “lowest level on the hierarchical plane” of learning. Schools could all disappear, but there would still be learning. There is a significant difference in the motives for teaching others how to survive in a Nazi death camp compared to teaching iambic pentameter. Thus, I am suggesting that the basis for the ecological analogy in learning should be compared to the primal interpersonal methods that humans use to communicate the means to survive. Technology, therefore, is an efficiency that is introduced only when the teacher feels it will not interfere with the primal assurance that information transfer will not be impaired, resulting in the death of offspring, which I suggest, is not often and intentional.

I cannot possibly prove that any of my tech-averse teachers have had a deep-rooted primal urge to protect me from “technological noise” resulting in my demise, though I would be willing to go so far as to think there is an efficacy motive within teachers that senses risks and responds with “implementation flight”. Perhaps there is a deeper evolutionary urgency in us that focuses on maintaining the most direct method of information transfer to protect the species? Let’s put it this way – I would never email my 3 year old to remember that he must never put anything metal in an electrical outlet.

Third, we do not always know why certain characteristics in nature evolve, such as in the narwhal’s giant 6-foot left front tooth (one of my 5-year-old daughter’s previous obsessions). We do, however, know why technology advances or improves (we call it evolving, though it is nothing of the natural sort).

It is because if they didn’t have those features, they would not be different from the next unit in their category. We can also infer that certain advantageous innovations are deliberately left out of some technologies for marketing reasons, such as offering a customer an entry-level product whose features are limited, with optional, more expensive upgrade pathways.

In education, I would suspect that entry-level technology is the more often the order than not – further suggestion that it is a contrived learning ecology removed from the more primal needs of other kinds of learning ecologies. First to come to mind is the military, where no expense is spared for preparedness. Has education spending in Congress ever been referred to as “must pass” legislation?

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